Friday, April 27, 2012

Summer Fun With a Conscience

Summer is just around the corner.  I’ve been thinking about vacations and trying to decide if we can fit one in before July or we should wait until August since we need to be home in July.

We had a bodacious Spring Break, driving to Orlando to visit Legoland, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and the Holy Land Experience.  Although we didn’t take a full week, we got to see three separate theme parks, all very different from each other.  I booked my room online and got a pretty good rate since we stayed in Kissimmee. 

But now I know, I could have booked my room and supported four nonprofit organizations at the same time through Hotels for Hope (H4H).  With summer vacations coming up, I want to share with you how you can find a great hotel at a good price and have a little of that cash go into a charity’s pocket.

It’s been a little over two years since H4H started its mission to help charities Special Olympics Texas, A Glimmer of Hope, Livestrong and Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

Located in Austin, at first, they were just partnering with Special Olympics Texas, asking hotels to make a small monetary donation as they booked delegations in their properties.

When they decided to take it further and begin H4H on April 13, 2010, they found three other nonprofits that they wanted to support and decided their focus would be on helping children.

Then in their first year of business, they raised $26,179 for those partner charities with the help of 203 hotels and 399 groups.

We’ve all heard of Special Olympics, physical contests for people with disabilities. My brother in law, who has Down Syndrome, has been to many of the events. Donations through H4H support crucial programs like Young Athletes and Healthy Athletes.

Many of us have also heard of Livestrong, the organization supporting people experiencing cancer which was begun by cyclist Lance Armstrong. H4H provides money for the Young Adult Alliance of Livestrong.

But A Glimmer of Hope is a little less well known. Its work is to bring clean water, education, healthcare and microfinance to rural Ethiopia. Proceeds donated by H4H are used to build and furnish schools in Ethiopia and to support Camp Glimmer, a summer program for disadvantaged youth in Austin.

You also may not have heard of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (T*A*P*S), which has been providing support for families of America’s fallen military heroes since 1994.  H4H’s donations help to provide a peer support network and military survivor seminars for adults as well as Good Grief Camps for children.

How does it work? H4H asks its hotel properties to donate $1 for each night booked and then it matches that $1, doubling its impact.

H4H also has a free membership club that gives you instant savings and members only offers with no annual fees, dues or even a cost to join.

So, this summer, give H4H a shot.  They can help you have a great vacation while also making you feel good for booking it with them.

Friday, April 20, 2012

You Deserve a Reward

This is National Volunteer Week, a week for recognition of volunteers in America.  I wasn’t going to say anything about it because I don’t believe volunteers do what they do for rewards and I have a bunch of ideas for blogs that I need to get written before summer comes. But then I found out about some cool programs for volunteers that you, my readers, might be interested in knowing about.

The first is from the Points of Light Institute. Through Sunday, they have a contest for volunteers to tell their stories for the chance to win a cruise to Alaska. Called Celebrating People in Action, it’s a wonderful way to share a volunteering story and win a prize for a fabulous volunteer, either yourself or someone you know.  

With L’Oreal Paris, Points of Light is also sponsoring the Women of Worth program, giving $10,000 to ten female honorees to donate to their charity of choice.  All honorees will go to New York City in December to be recognized and one will receive an additional $25,000 grant.

Points of Light also organizes a national conference on volunteering and service known as the Turning Point Conference. This year Kevin Bacon, J.R. Martinez and Barbara Bush are all speaking at the conference which goes June 18 through 20 and will be held in Chicago.

For the younger volunteers, there are the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards in early May (May 7 this year). Every year, the top high school and middle level youth volunteers in each state and the District of Columbia are selected as State Honourees. Each receives a $1,000 award, an engraved silver medallion, and an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., for several days of national recognition events. In addition, two to 10 runners-up in each state are named Distinguished Finalists and receive a bronze medallion.

From among the state honourees, 10 national honourees are chosen to receive an additional award of $5,000, an engraved gold medallion, a crystal trophy for their schools or organizations, and a $5,000 grant from The Prudential Foundation for a non-profit, charitable organization of their choice.

But the thing that got me thinking about doing this blog at all is an app I just discovered called Reward Volunteers.  It’s a free app that lets you track the time you spend volunteering so you can earn rewards for yourself and the organizations you serve.  It runs from February 14 to July 7, 2012.  You use the iPhone app or a web widget to log volunteer time and get friends involved by sharing on Facebook or by email.

The more volunteer hours you log, Facebook “likes” and comments and emails you get, the more chances you have to win prizes like gift certificates, snowboards and even vacation trips.  On July 7, 2012, five nonprofit organizations will also be selected to receive $3,000 each.

So, although volunteering is a reward in itself because it makes you healthier and happier, here are a few ways that volunteers can get other kinds of rewards they may not be thinking about but that they’ll surely enjoy.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Stepping Out in Faith

Easter has come and gone. It was a busy but nice day for us.  I volunteer in our church’s three and four year old Sunday School class and usually have from about 17 to 23 kids in there.  I have a helper most days, too, because that’s a lot of kids for one person.

This Easter, we ended up having 35 children in the class.  Thank God for my friend who came in during the first service to drop off her child and saw that I had 31 children already. She volunteered to help me and in the end we split the class up into two classes next door to each other. 

The kids are so adorable.  They love the little games we play in there like playing hot potato with different items or taping stickers to a picture on the wall. They also love to share. One child shared his mealtime prayer on Easter with the rest of us, closing his eyes and singing it to the whole class.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the James 1:27 verse: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

These kids aren’t orphans, but I do think of sharing the gospel with them as a ministry.  Right now, I am thinking about orphans in Uganda though, and considering how I can look after them.

You might remember that for Lent, I fasted once a week until Maundy Thursday when we broke our fast with a Sedar meal.  The meal was wonderful and talking about it could be a whole other blog, but to get back to the point, I decided that I would take the money I saved by fasting and give it to a good cause. 

I gave the first eight bucks I saved to Skip1, which provides food and water to the needy.  Then I got a call from a local mission called Waterfront Rescue Mission which was providing Easter meals to homeless people in Pensacola.

I gave them half of what I had left and was told it would provide 34 meals.  I could hear the gratitude in the man’s voice who took my contribution as he told me they counted on people like me to donate.

I still have $76 to donate and was thinking I might give it to World Food Programme. They do such good work and had sent me an email asking for a donation. They’ve been teaming up with the makers of The Hunger Games movie, too, so they were on my mind for that.

But now I’m considering something totally different. The night I tried to donate to WFP, I couldn’t get through to their website.  I think I know why.

You see, someone has left a message twice on my Volunteer and Charity Guru Facebook page telling me about his orphanage.  I responded to his comment but he didn’t write me back last time. This time he did.

He told me he is caring for 15 orphans in his facility without any regular support. He also mentioned an additional 72 orphans and 23 widows that he helps.  I gave him my email address and he told me he started the ministry in 2005 and it’s only grown since then because of children losing their parents to AIDS. 

I have to admit, at first I thought maybe he was just trying to con money out of me, but I think he may be for real.  I’m still trying to find out more so I can know that the money will go to his Shalom Orphan Home instead of just to him.

You know, sometimes, we just have to step out in faith.  I have had many fake emails from people in other countries asking for my help in transferring funds or saying they had money for me, but there is something about this guy that makes me feel like he is telling the truth. 

I can’t go to Charity Navigator and check him out, but I’m going to ask some more questions and if I’m satisfied, I’m going to send him the $76.  How have you stepped out in faith to help others this Lent and Easter season? 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Here's to Your Health

As of yesterday I have been volunteering for the American Cancer Society (ACS) for one year.  It has been a great experience.  The people I volunteer for are so appreciative of my work.  I’ve had the chance to brush up on my clerical skills.  I enjoy getting out of the house, meeting new people and being involved in an organization that’s making a difference in the world.  

The kicker is that because I have volunteered more than 40 hours in the past year (other studies say 100 hours), I also am in better health than if I hadn’t volunteered. You read that right, volunteering more than 40 hours a year makes you healthier. At least that’s true according to the Corporation for National and Community Service which reviewed two decades of research on the benefits of volunteering.  Here are a few of the results:

·         Volunteering enhances a person's social networks to buffer stress and reduce disease     risk
·         Individuals who volunteer live longer (even when taking into account factors such as physical health, age, socioeconomic status and gender)
·         Individuals who volunteer at an earlier point experience greater functional ability and better health outcomes later in life (even when the studies control for other factors, such as socioeconomic status and previous illness)
·         Volunteering has a positive effect on social psychological factors, such as a personal sense of purpose and accomplishment

It’s nice to know that I’m probably going to live a longer and healthier life because I did something to help other people. Some might think that being around other people in an office would increase your risk of disease so it’s also good to know there is evidence that it actually reduces the risk. 

As for social psychological factors, getting tasks done at ACS definitely makes me feel good and being around purposeful people also enhances my social networks.  I’ve gotten to know some really nice people at ACS, people that want to know how I’m really doing.

I’ve mentioned a few times that my mother has been experiencing double vision for six weeks now (going on seven).  I had to take a day off from volunteering to help her out so the people at ACS know what’s going on.  They have prayed for my mother and asked how she has been doing, something that means a lot to me.

I write a lot about ways to help others, many that are easy and can be done from the comfort of your own home. But getting out there and putting your hands and feet where your mouth is means a lot. Apparently, it is also good for you. Just one more reason to volunteer!